The Apples in Stereo: #1 Hits Explosion

Photo: Joshua Kessler

Super-catchy indie-pop "greatest hits" from the Elephant 6 pioneers.

The Apples in Stereo

#1 Hits Explosion

Label: Yep Roc
US Release Date: 2009-08-31
UK Release Date: 2009-09-07

Here's the thing with out-and-out pop music. It can seem superficial, temporary, a guilty pleasure. When I was kid, I loved "Yummy, Yummy, Yummy (I Got Love in my Tummy)" by the Ohio Express and "Joy to the World" by Three Dog Night. But I can't say those tunes stand up to any kind of scrutiny today. Soon enough my friends and I were beyond that stuff, listening to Led Zeppelin, through with music that was actually, you know... tuneful and fun. Not all pop is shallow. But for a really long stretch there, it seemed like smart pop, pop unstuck from bubblegum, was all too rare.

In the early 1990s, there was a glorious re-explosion of tuneful pop music, but it was pop music that came with an awareness that a healthy slice of edge can immunize a catchy song from seeming vapid. In simple terms, this meant that bands who loved the Beach Boys and the Beatles also loved the Velvet Underground and the Ramones. With a little bite added to the mix, these bands, largely working independently, were able to recapture the strength of great '60s pop.

The Apples in Stereo were, and are, one of these bands. They emerged 18 years ago as part of the "Elephant 6 Recording Company", along with Neutral Milk Hotel, the Olivia Tremor Control, and a few other bands constructed from a small group of pop-crazed friends. "Tidal Wave" by the Apples was the collective's first release: a garage-rock single featuring a fuzzed-out but killer guitar lick, clattering drums, random squeals and electric tones, and, crucially, a beyond-catchy vocal. Eight albums later, the Apples in Stereo (the latter two words were added later) are the last Elephant 6 band still actively and regularly making great music. They're not famous or rich, but the music is the kind of sheer joy that should appeal to everyone.

#1 Hits Explosion is a compilation of the best, catchiest, and most irresistible stuff from the Apples in Stereo. Of course, the title is a self-conscious reference to the kind of albums that used to come out in the '60s and early '70s, the kinds of platters that might have included "Yummy" or "Joy to the World". The Apples—Robert Schneider on guitar and vocals for all of the band's history, as well as Hillarie Sidney, John Hill, Eric Allen, Bill Doss, and others—are clearly comfortable with this sort of knowing nod to the past. "Ruby" (from 1999's Her Wallpaper Reverie) and "Signal in the Sky" (from, actually, the Powerpuff Girls soundtrack disc in 2000) are rife with "La-la-la" and "Ba-ba-ba-ba" chorus moments. "Strawberryfire" is straight-up psychedelia that is so Lennon-esque all it's missing is Yoko Ono.

This throwback attitude works well for Schneider and the Apples because the whole enterprise is perfectly leavened with punk punch. Punk, after all, was not so much a reaction against three-minute pop as it was against bloated prog-rock or the pretenses of what we now call "Classic Rock"—"Stairway to Heaven" bloviating. The Apples in Stereo and their contemporaries were drunk on Brian Wilson harmonies, no doubt, but their deeper allegiance was to "the song", to the joy of the sure-fire hook.

"Can You Feel It" (from 2007's New Magnetic Wonder) comes at your ears like a convertible hurtling down the highway in mid-July. It kicks off with a fat guitar riff and the cry "Oh-ho Oh-oh, Oh-ho Oh-oh! Turn up your stereo!"—accompanied by some insistent cowbell. This song is so punchy that, for all intents and purposes, it has no verse and instead two different choruses. But a song from the first album (1995's Fun Trick Noisemaker), "Winter Is Cold" (written and sung by Sidney) is just as pop-pure, with a killer guitar lick and a bed of harmonies surrounding the female lead.

Fuzz-toned guitars keep the treacle at bay on many tunes, such as "Go" (off The Discovery of a World Inside the Moone from 2000). But "Go" also contains equal parts horn section and organ groove. Combining a prominent piccolo part with raunchy guitar then slipping in a percussion breakdown is classic Apples. But so is "Same Old Drag" (2007), which is driven by acoustic piano and Wurlitzer electric piano textures bumping beneath a truly soulful vocal. "The Rainbow" (2000) contains just a hint of country music, but you're more likely to attribute its pop-perfect instinct to Fountains of Wayne. So, there is a diversity in The Apples pop consistency.

Is it unfair or fitting that the Apples in Stereo never really had their "Stacey's Mom" moment? Perhaps it hardly matters. In recent years, their mere longevity has started to mean something. They've lasted twice as long as their Fab inspiration, and their good music outweighs that of their heroes the Beach Boys, even if they've never written a "God Only Knows". They've recently appeared twice on The Colbert Report, and while they own no Grammys, they did win an "Independent Music Award" last year for "Same Old Drag". Something about the Apples in Stereo is built to last.

#1 Hits Explosion makes the argument that this music gives great surface, certainly, but also that it carries some weight. The lyrics to a good number of songs tell stories and go well beyond a sugary surface. But the real depth here is purely tonal. Schneider and his band are fantastic producers, layering sounds both obvious (guitars, pianos, drums, and singing) and unlikely (horn sections, oddball percussion, buzzing synths, crowd sounds, and hard-to-identify rumbles, cracks, warbles, and shrieks). Though much of the early music was recorded only to eight tracks, the Apples never fail to make the music sound pocket-symphonic. This is not the pseudo-sophistication of an orchestra in pop music but, rather, the pop tools themselves used orchestrally. The Apples in Stereo have made 15 years of these little pop miracles.

With a "greatest hits" collection now out, the obvious concern is that this band is over. But Schneider recently announced that the band was in the studio recording something new. Here's hoping it is, like all the band's work, both fresh and not entirely new.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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